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quietearth [Celluloid 06.25.13] horror documentary

What do you do when scripted horror starts to feel stale? When zombies get old and haunted house movies are coming out every other week? How do you re-invent the wheel and bring some authenticity back to the genre? Found footage works to inject a sense of immediacy and reality to a film, but since Blair Witch the DIY tactic has made its way into the mainstream. It's just not good enough. At least, not for filmmakers Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett who banded together to create the first film in a scary new series that spins documentary and scripted found-footage together to form a new kind of horror storytelling that we haven't really seen before.

Embracing the hoary old adage "truth is stranger than fiction", the creators of The Zombie Diaries series decided to turn their camera on the real-life urban legends and haunted tales of unexplained phenomena that have scared people for decades. The new series is called The Paranormal Diaries and the first investigation centers on the legend of Clophill, the real-life resting place of St. Mary's Church where cults and satanists are rumored to have congregated in the 60s and 70s.

I was very impressed with The Paranormal Diaries. In a bold move, the film is not only presented as a documentary, but, for the first and second act, it actually is an honest-to-god documentary. I don't mean a faux-documentary like Mungo Lake, but a proper documentary. Real townsfolk are interviewed and the legend of Clophill is revealed through hearsay and actual news archives. Gates and Bartlett follow paranormal groups to the site over a few evenings, but we are only flies on the wall. Strange things happen naturally and our guard begins to drop. That's when the filmmaker's strike.

By the third act, we're lulled into the authenticity of the documentary. The legend has taken shape and we're on the edge of our seat, ready to learn the truth once and for all. I spoke with the directors after the screening and told them I could imagine someone catching the film on TV and thinking it was a standard documentary. I could just imagine their jaws hitting the floor when at the end, ghostly cults are captured on tape and members of the crew begin to vanish. The vocabulary of the film is such that if you didn't know what you were watching you would be floored when the shift came.

In this way, The Paranormal Diaries is a new kind of horror aesthetic. Documentary fused with scripted horror in a seamless way and I challenge any of you to name a film that has done this. Documentary that morphs into scripted storytelling. I can't think of one.

Interview with Co-Director Kevin Gates

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